The ACLU of Massachusetts and Goodwin Procter LLP tonight filed a lawsuit against the Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) challenging its denial of medication for addiction treatment (MAT) to prisoners diagnosed with opioid use disorder. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of three people currently incarcerated in Massachusetts prisons, argues that the DOC is violating both the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and the Americans with Disabilities Act’s protections for people with opioid use disorder.
Despite medical consensus that MAT is the standard care for opioid use disorder, the lawsuit alleges that the DOC has a compulsory-withdrawal policy. Under this policy, when people who have been prescribed MAT and are in recovery arrive in DOC custody, their MAT is discontinued rather than provided.
“By failing to provide the necessary, prescribed treatment for opioid use disorder, the Massachusetts Department of Correction is forcing people to needlessly suffer due to their illness, and to face increased risk of overdose,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Denying medication for addiction treatment to incarcerated people with opioid use disorder is both unsafe and unlawful. Public officials should support people in their efforts to overcome opioid addiction, not obstruct them.”
The three named plaintiffs in the lawsuit had each been receiving individualized, prescribed daily-doses of buprenorphine. When they entered state prison, they learned from prison medical providers that, as a matter of policy, they would receive MAT for only 90 days, after which the medication would be withdrawn. Without prescribed medication, people suffer painful withdrawal and face an increased risk of relapse, overdose, and death. One of the three plaintiffs has already had his MAT completely withdrawn since entering DOC custody. The lawsuit alleges that the DOC has indicated that it will withdraw MAT for the other two plaintiffs in late December and early January.
“Denying access to life-saving medicine is inhumane and violates the law,” said Alexandra Valenti, partner at Goodwin. "We urge the Massachusetts Department of Correction to modernize its practices and conform to the medical consensus that medication for addiction treatment is the standard of care and should be made available to anyone incarcerated and in need.”
Federal courts have recently required facilities in Massachusetts to provide MAT to incarcerated people with opioid use disorder. In a November 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts victory, a federal court ordered Essex County to provide a Massachusetts man with continued access to his methadone during his sentence. Other federal and local correctional facilities have agreed to settle legal claims to provide MAT in their facilities; the Federal Bureau of Prisons entered a final settlement agreement to provide a Massachusetts woman her prescribed methadone treatment throughout the course of her incarceration.
Earlier this month, the ACLU and Goodwin Procter sent a letter to DOC officials, informing DOC of their clients’ serious medical needs and requesting assurance that, for the duration of their clients’ sentences in DOC custody, they will be provided with buprenorphine maintenance treatment at the dosages previously prescribed by their medical providers. In response, the DOC sent a letter providing no such assurance. Attorneys are now asking the federal court to issue a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction that would require DOC officials to provide the prisoners their prescribed medication for continued treatment of their opioid use disorder while incarcerated.